Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass, the Second Sunday before Advent 2015

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez, oil on canvas, 1867.

Daniel 12.1-3
Hebrews 10.11-25
Mark 13.1-8

“There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” So says Daniel in the Old Testament reading today. The people of Paris will be feeling that particularly today, as will many in Syria and Iraq and other places.
The Book of Daniel is a kind of Biblical writing called “apocalypse”, which means “unveiling”. It is about unmasking the spiritual realities at work in the world, something that Jesus himself did in his life, death and resurrection.
Today Jesus and his disciples have visited the Temple in Jerusalem, which in Mark’s gospel is part of the focus of that unveiling. What is the temple about? It is a cover, a veil, for the oppressive powers at work in Jerusalem. It is a place of sacred violence, both in the cult of sacrifice and in its exploitation of the poor. The Temple was hugely rich, a storehouse of money and commodities, but it never ceased devouring the substance of the poor, right down to a poor widow’s last coins. Jesus is opposed to that, wanting it instead to be a house of prayer for all nations.
More than that, it is the touchstone for all the simmering violence between the Roman occupiers and Jewish nationalists. It focused hatred and fear of the other, and the sacred casting out of the other which even enables you to kill them when you stop seeing that they are the same as you.
Jesus saw with clarity the tragic future of Jerusalem and its Temple. In the year AD 70 there was a rebellion by Jewish Zealots, religious fundamentalists who wanted to purify the land by driving out foreigners. They proved no match for the might of Rome and ended up besieged in Jerusalem. The resulting destruction and massacre of the inhabitants were terrible, as was the religious mania of the defenders who threw themselves into an orgy of death convinced that God was on their side. They were all killed, and Jerusalem and the Temple were completely destroyed.
So when Jesus says that the Temple will fall, this is electrifying and dangerous talk. Imagine if a radical preacher of our own day were to stand outside Whitehall, or the Bank of England, and say, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
I imagine the security forces would swing into action pretty rapidly if they heard that sort of talk. As indeed they did when Jesus said it. Because, after all, it sounds like a threat of violent revolution – at least if that is what we are expecting radical preachers to say.
But Jesus is different. His message has been, consistently, that he is destined to suffer and be killed, and that his followers must renounce violence and love their enemies. But the disciples are particularly slow on the uptake over this, as we have seen in many passages from the gospels.
So when the disciples come to Jesus privately to ask him more about the destruction of the Temple, we must expect them to have misunderstood. They ask, “when is all this going to happen, and what will be the sign”, they want to know when the starting gun for the revolution is going to be fired. But Jesus immediately says to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray!” He is correcting them. There will indeed be wars, and rising of nations against nations, and earthquakes, and famines. But, crucially, these are not the signs that the disciples are to look for. And, if anyone says that they are, they are being led astray.
This is absolutely central to Jesus’ message. The violent convulsions that engulf the world, the anguish that afflicts the nations, are not the signs of God.
God is not like that. And that is so difficult for the disciples to get their heads around because for millennia people have been imagining God in the shape of their own violence. This is what enables people to murder in the name of God, because they imagine a violent God who is on their side and opposed to their enemies. Under that false imagination of God even murder disguises itself as a holy act, a religious duty.
As we saw in last week’s Gospel, this is the normal state of humanity. It is part of what the Church calls “original sin”, the flaw in our nature that makes us all go astray. This false perception of God is part of that. And Jesus comes into that situation of sin and proclaims repentance and the Kingdom of God.
God, it turns out, is completely different from what humanity has supposed. God does not want to destroy us (or our enemies) for our sins, but to forgive us. Love, not violence, is the ruling principle of his Kingdom. God in Jesus has come to those who do not know him, who hate him, who in the end will reject him and kill him. Why? So that we can be forgiven. So that we can be reconciled, and brought back to friendship with God and with one another. So that we can come home and live in the love who made us for himself.
The Gospel blows open the sacred disguise that cloaks the heart of our own violence and shows us that it has nothing to do with God. This means that the Gospel enables us both to be completely realistic about the world, and at the same time to be hopeful.
We can be completely realistic, because Jesus does not pretend that the world’s violence is other than it is. He will be killed, Jerusalem will be destroyed. There will be wars and disasters and times of anguish.
But we can be hopeful nonetheless, because those evil things are not the signs of God. God in Jesus is doing something new. The Creator and the Redeemer are one and the same, the ultimate reality behind the universe is love, and that love will prevail.
Someone on the Today programme yesterday said that the most disturbing thing about the attacks in Paris was not the atrocities in themselves but the way it showed that fear of the other was becoming the defining reality of our age. This is where the hope of the Gospel can make a real difference.
Fear of the other chokes and poisons society. There will be, for example, Muslim neighbours of ours, peaceful and law abiding people, who may be experiencing that fear. Fear that they will be held accountable or looked at as enemies. Others will be afraid of the foreigner, of the stranger, of the refugee, of religious people, of anyone who is different.
The Gospel tells us the truth about this world of violence and sin. But it also tells us the better truth, the good news of God in whom there is no death or violence at all. This enables us to live without fear of the other or fear for the future. This is why we pray for the people of Paris, and strive to be good neighbours, and pray for our enemies, too.  Because there is a better truth, the truth of God in whom there is no darkness at all, the love who made us for himself and who, when we were lost in sin, came to save us in Jesus.

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